Maj. Danny

The Tragedy of Col. (ret.) Joel Rayburn: A Former Student’s Lament

Joel Rayburn was a favorite professor at West Point. Sadly, he later rejected intellectual consistency and championed rather than challenged America’s hopeless and ethically indefensible wars.
Joel Rayburn [Reuters Photo/2019]

By Maj. (ret.) Danny Sjursen / Reposted with permission of

There are maybe a dozen instructors whom I remember well from my cadet days at West Point. A few of these were monsters; the rest inspiring in some way. Major Joel Rayburn was the latter sort. I was a secret-geek of a history major in my junior year: Spring 2004, I believe. The classroom was my solace from the madness of cadet life and diversion from thoughts of an impending deployment to one of America’s two major wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. At the time, the latter was the destination of choice. Joel hadn’t been to either war yet either.

A class of 1992 academy graduate who’d spent 9/11 working on a master’s degree at Texas A&M University, he was – like most of our instructors at the time – by an accident of history, just barely too young to catch combat in the Persian Gulf War and too old to have “seen the elephant” in the still fresh Global War on Terror (GWOT). To his credit, Rayburn wasn’t the sort, but one got the sneaking sense that many instructors were just itching to wrap up their teaching stint and get “into the fight.” Some even exuded resentment.

After all, their green students would likely experience war – and earn the then coveted “combat patch” denoting this on their right uniformed-shoulder sleeves – before they would. We new graduates would even earn the privilege (and credibility) of being far closer to the “real thing” as platoon leaders and such, whilst our former professors – when they rotated off the faculty – would inevitably toil on battalion and brigade staffs, running the wars while we got all the glory. It just didn’t seem fair to the more insecure instructors.

Major Rayburn was smarter than your average professorial bear – even among his more cerebral, academic-inclined officer peers who’d applied for the rather competitive – approximately 15 percent selection rate – West Point gig. I took his elective on modern British History (circa 1815-present), and it was one of my favorite courses at the academy. I felt a certain kinship with this thoughtful, softer-spoken, and less brash army major.

His peers were always posturing: their muscles perennially tense, chests pressed forward, language loud and coarse. Except for the few aging Vietnam veterans left among the senior faculty, and a handful who’d touched toes in the Somalian or 100-hour Gulf War imbroglios, it felt like most of these gentlemen had a lot to prove. A good many played their insecurities out on the stage of Thayer Hall classrooms for captive audiences of impressionable and often fawning cadets.

Not Rayburn. He didn’t look – or seem to much care – to be the type to run ten miles, then humble-brag, posture and project about our obligation (as future officers) to do the same. He was made of sterner and smarter stuff. He was pensive, humble, yet intellectually confident, and occasionally emitted endearing belly laughs. Joel was the rare instructor who seemed comfortable in his own skin, who knew what he was and equally well what he wasn’t. He also knew and quietly embodied a rarely spoken truth – that, whatever his meathead glorified sergeants-of-colleagues claimed, an officer’s real weapon was his mind.

I guess you could say that I liked him from the start. So imagine my profound disappointment – sorrow, really – when Joel later rejected intellectual consistency, and championed rather than challenged America’s hopeless and ethically indefensible wars. As such, let us play a dark game of “where are they now?” Well, Joel currently serves as Donald Trump’s, and more specifically, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s point-man on regime change and civilian-punishing sanctions: the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria. But, as ever, there’s a backstory to his assignment.

An Orientalist’s Education

I mentioned that Joel taught me basic British History – but even then his real academic interest was London’s policy inthe Near East. Specifically, he studied the British experience in Iraq, after they’d snatched it up in the wake of the First World War. That’s where his neo-imperial and wildly optimistic troubles began.

In fact, at the very time he taught my class, Joel published an article in the Los Angeles Times – a rare thing indeed for a junior instructor – titled “Beginning to Bloom.” In it, he argued that “when measured against the only previous attempt at Iraqi democracy-building – in the 1920s under the British – the current effort compares favorably in virtually every way,” and rated as “speedy and farsighted.” Then, in 2006, he published an analogous account of The Last Exit From Iraq – that of the Brits in the 1920-30s – as a sort of cautionary tale for Americans ready to cut and run from a failing war. A not irrelevant side note: London’s suppression of the Iraq Revolt(s) cost about 1,000 British and some 10,000 Iraqi lives – as opposed to more than 4500 U.S. troops and at least 500,000 Iraqi deaths. Something doesn’t add up.

Nevertheless, Joel was one of the first – maybe then the only – history instructors I’d seen incorporate the still fairly new trend of cultural history into his classes. Like I said, he was rather refined; understated yet unique. Paintings, poems, and especially music were Joel’s handy heuristics – teaching tools to demonstrate deeper truths than any facts and timelines could ever hope to. The guy had your attention from the first minute of West Point’s standard 55-minute class bloc.

To this day, I’m apt to impart to any willing listeners some otherwise esoteric facts I learned from Joel: like how the popular pious Christmas song, “What Child Is This,” actually derives from the melody of the English folk ballad “Greensleeves,” which wasn’t religious in nature at all. Indeed, it was likely about an agonizing romantic conundrum, with what some view as subtly salacious lyrics. Legend attributes it to Henry VIII, who supposedly penned it for Anne Boleyn – a woman he would ultimately marry and execute. In other words, in his teaching choices and concepts – Joel was the challenge-all-assumptions sort.

There were, in retrospect, other indicators of Joel’s neo-imperial potential. One of the songs he played – and, as ever, illuminated the backstory for – was the popular American graduation march “Land of Hope and Glory.” He explained its original roots as the hyper-patriotic British song composed at the apex of empire, “Pomp and Circumstance March #1.” He also invited the prominent Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami to guest lecture our class. A true believer – perhaps understandably so – in the promise of Western modernization’s potential in the region, Ajami had, after all, been taunted as a boy by Sunni Muslim children for being Shiite (and short) back in his native Lebanon.

A onetime enthusiast of pan-Arabism, Ajami later rejected this ideology, as well as its follow-on thread of Islamism, especially after he moved to the United States in his late teens. What I remember most vividly about the guest-teach was his vicious, yet seemingly informed, denunciation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (P.L.O.’s) Yasser Arafat. It all seemed so sensible at the time. I hadn’t the intellectual education, nor the ethical confidence, to challenge Ajami’s failure to articulate a better path to peace and Palestinian independence. In fact, with the conviction of the converted, Ajami sounded – looking back – a lot like an Israeli aggression-apologist.

Still, at the time, Fouad Ajami – and the fact that our instructor could land him – seemed more than a touch impressive. Like Joel, Fouad was intelligent, sophisticated, and so very different from most of the West Point faculty crowd. That said, by the time he guest taught Joel’s British History class, Ajami had already ardently supported the 2003 Iraq invasion – described by The Nation at its outset as “the Pentagon’s favorite Arab.” He also advised Condoleezza Rice, his friend and former colleague Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and had his ideas regularly recycled in print by the likes of – you guessed it – Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller.

In fact, he got an epic shout-out from Vice President Dick Cheney – sort of a scholarly assist to sell an unnecessary war – in an August 2002 speech: “As for the reaction of the Arab ‘street,’ the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are ‘sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.’”

Alas, the expert was wrong, and it turned out there’d be much bloody mess for both Joel and me to help “clean up” after we’d left the academy.

Hitching to Petraeus’s Star

I entered Iraq in October 2006 – right at peak civil war cataclysm. Joel showed up five months later as a strategic analyst with the Commander’s Initiatives Group (CIG) – translation: members of the “surge” braintrust of America’s new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. According to one fawning study, this group, along with Petraeus’s personal staff, was “handpicked…an impressive group that included officers who were Rhodes scholars, had doctorates, or were at the top of their West Point classes.”

They included Colonel Pete Mansoor, Petraeus’s executive officer and chief of staff; Colonel Bill Rapp, the head of CIG; Colonel Mark Martins, staff legal advisor; and Major Everett Spain, the general’s aide. The now Colonel Spain also taught at West Point during my cadet tenure and currently heads its Department of Behavioral Sciences.

See, the little lie within the big lie (or long con) – that there was a military solution in Iraq – was that a dream team of degree-dripping, urbane, intellectual officers could still “win” the war. Would that they could, my friends…would that they could.

Anyway, to say the least, Joel and I fought very different wars during that critical tour – the surge looked rather different from that America-facsimile of a “Green Zone,” than it did dodging IEDs and snipers on East Baghdad’s streets, or picking up the teenage bodies executed the night before.

That said, I hardly thought (or think) that combat-duty necessarily implies wisdom; nor did (or do) I recommend minimizing the thinking-end of warfare. Furthermore, I saw the Iraq War through a soda-straw – folks like Joel might even surmise that guys like me missed the victorious forest for the turbulent trees. Then again, given how the whole surge-ruse shook out – Shia sectarian strongman consolidation, Sunni alienation, the rise of ISIS – I’d argue the big picture-crowd missed some decisive details at the ground-level.

Maybe that’s because Petraeus’s posse broke the historian’s cardinal rule that Joel knew full well: they started with the theory and then forced the pieces to fit. We can’t totally blame Joel; after all, most of King David’s crew taught social science at the academy – and this has always been a more deductive lot than the insistently inductive historical reasoners. Still, there were enough West Point History Department alum – H.R. McMaster, Peter Mansoor, and yes, Joel – who should’ve known better and spoken up.

The main problem, perhaps, was their assumptions-laden start point: to wit, the US military should be in Iraq; its presence wouldn’t inherently enflame resistance, and could salvage long-term victory from the jaws of defeat. None of it panned out. Of course, that’s essentially what the previous CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid had told Joel during then Major Rayburn’s early visits in 2006. Abizaid was – like Fouad Ajami – a Lebanese-American, but also a West Point grad (Class of ’73) who’d studied the Mideast, spent significant time there over the years – including a stint with the UN’s South Lebanon force during Hezbollah’s insurgency against Israel. He, too, once taught at the academy.

Violence did decrease in Iraq by 2008, though that proved predictably fleeting. Still, Joel and company stayed loyal to Petraeus and his delusional dream – as well as the narrative of success: what could’ve been, had that weak-sister President Obama not squandered their efforts by pulling stakes in 2011. They learned all the wrong lessons from the surge – heck, King David-the-Unapologetic even penned a 2013 piece in Foreign Policy unsubtly titled “How We Won in Iraq.” That was just a year before ISIS stepped into town. But he wasn’t the only one: Rayburn and his academic mentor-cum-class guest were pushing the very same general narrative – if an a bit more nuanced one (but only just).

When Joel published his first book, Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance, in 2014 – beating this former student’s weigh-in on the subject by a solid year! – he specifically thanked“Professor Fouad Ajami and his work as a scholar in a field he helped create.” Funny, there was no mention of how catastrophically wrong Ajami had been about Iraq – nor the bill for that error in hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

Oh, and by the way, Joel has since literally written the book on the history of America’s involvement there – the officially authorized The US Army in the Iraq War (US Army War College Press, January 2019). In it, the authors parry towards self-criticism – admitting paltry post-invasion preparation, misunderstanding local culture, foolishly disbanding the Iraqi army and firing Baath Party bureaucrats, or rotating troops too frequently – but this is ultimately a magician’s mirage.

Such operational- and tactical-level admissions of failure are the sort of sleights of faux-intellectual hand that characterize the entire strategic project Joel joined after leaving West Point’s faculty. What the US Army official history he wrote really means to say – its truly notable claim, mentioned but in passing in a penultimate paragraph – is exceedingly dangerous in its implications: that “the failure of the United States to attain its strategic objectives in Iraq was not inevitable.” As one review in the hardly dovish Foreign Affairs noted:

…the study declines to focus on more timely and contested questions, such as whether it was ever in the realm of possibility to invade a large and diverse Middle Eastern country – one that posed no direct threat to the United States – at an acceptable cost. 

Therein lies the real sin – of the book, and of Joel’s last 15-years of public service. Both could have been written by the late Fouad Ajami.

Years in the Neocon Desert

The old Ajami angle was instructive in another way. About a year on from his class visit, as Iraq crumbled into undeniable (and predictable) sectarian chaos – and just months before my scout platoon entered the fray – he published The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, The Arabs and The Iraqis in Iraq. This 2006 book argued that the real problem wasn’t the trumped-up US invasion, but the ingratitude and lack of faith from Arab governments, Muslim imams, and even Western-leaning intellectuals.

Had they realized what lucky freedom-recipients they were, and stayed the course, “liberty for Iraq and a new political order for the Arab world” might have stuck. Then, almost ten years after he graced our class, Ajami remained unapologetic – his 2013 Wall Street Journal column headline called the US invasion “an Honorable War.” Of course, in 2011 he’d been appointed a senior fellow at the hyper-hawkish Hoover Institution – which my dear instructor Joel joined too.

Within the military, after a brief stint doing some NATO planning in Kabul, Afghanistan, Joel was a Senior Military Fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, from November 2010 – July 2012. Then he spent fully three and half years directing the US Army’s Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group – which produced the “official” history of that failed war.

Joel Rayburn’s stint in and out of the interventionist think-tank-morass exposes the loudly lauded lie – from within and without – of the “apolitical” military officer corps. See, as much as these folks squawk about their nonpartisanship, the truth is the ladies doth protest too much – and the entire concept has always been one-sided in theory and practice. In other words, there are long linkages between academic-minded military officers and hawkish Republican (often neoconservative) think tanks and university programs. That said, as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) proves, the Dems too – however “polite” and Obama-inflected they style themselves – have more than gotten in on the game.

Some potential dangers of this were summed up well by David Graham in The Atlantic:”too many military leaders, critics say, warp national priorities at best and slouch toward a junta at worse.” That may be an understatement.

The point is, the “too political” charge only applies – per the ‘90s country song – to those military intellectual “renegades, rebels, and rogues” who dare question the endless wars they’ve been asked to fight. Come to think of it: wasn’t Trump’s pick for ambassador to Germany, decorated former army officer Douglas Macgregor – who’s been mostly right on the military issues of the day – recently described in Politico as a “renegade retired colonel?” In other words, the skeptical Macgregor was just too outspoken and “political” for the Pentagon’s taste – but those doing stints at the highly partisan and hawkish Hoover Institution? Heck, that’s the norm – a leg up, even!

Oh, and back to Joel’s acknowledgments section in his 2014 book: he also singled out another character for “special thanks” – General H.R. McMaster, “at whose side I spent most of my time in Iraq. Out nation has rarely produced leaders of his talent and energy…” Which, given McMaster’s later appointment as Trump’s national security adviser, might explain Joel’s landing in The Donald’s administration.

Reborn in the Age of Trump

Rayburn entered Trump’s administration on day one, serving as Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon at the National Security Council from January 2017 – July 2018. There, paradoxically, he joined what one profile piece described as “The colonels shaping Trump’s Middle East policy…retired military intelligence officers who helped David Petraeus with the surge in Iraq…now shaping policies for a president who says the United States should have never invaded Iraq.”

In addition to Rayburn, the crew included retired US Army Col. Derek Harvey – another “Petraeus protégé” – who initially led the NSC Middle East team. (Harvey has since gone to work for Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, where he’s been implicated in sending text messages – released by the House – to Ukrainian-American and Rudy Giuliani associate, Lev Parnas, to obtain dirt on Joe Biden.)

Also in the NSC’s council of colonels was retired army officer Dr. Michael Bell, who then served as the NSC director for Gulf Affairs. A 1983 graduate of West Point, Bell too taught in its History Department and had been lead writer “for the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism” after the 9/11 attacks. Dear Lord! Then, in 2008-09, he served as the second CIG Director at Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) headquarters. Bell retired from the army in August 2012 – David Petraeus was there for the ceremony.

In other words, when it comes to Washington’s Mideast policymaking – under Dems and Republicans alike – the players are an incestuous lot indeed. So are the civilian academics they cite and seek out for counsel.

See, on a certain level, the Rayburn-Ajami axis still rears its head in Joel’s current assignment as Special Envoy for Syria – which he took on just over two years ago. At the outset of the Syria’s civil war – and just a few years before his own death – Ajami again cheered for regime change. This time it was Assad’s regime – “the mask of” which “finally falls,” according to the Pentagon’s once-favorite expert. Joel’s affinity for Ajami – which was obvious to any sentient student in the class – clearly influenced his own views on the Syrian crisis he now spearheads for an administration that’s even more ignorant than most.

On Syria, Joel was – I’m sorry to say – almost the worst possible choice. As early as February 2012, he’d dismissed reasonable concerns about the growing Islamism of the country’s rebels, and arrogantly prescribed exceedingly paternalistic solutions for the Syrians. In a post for the Hoover Institution he wrote:

If [Assad] is Al Qaeda’s enemy, some will say, then should the world not refrain from toppling him, for fear of creating a vacuum Al Qaeda can exploit?

But this line of thinking should be discarded straightaway.  The best counterterrorism strategy for Syria now would be Bashar al-Assad’s immediate departure, which alone can begin to dampen the sectarian fires he and his regime have stoked both outside and inside Syria.  Having nurtured Al Qaeda in Iraq in the first place, Assad has forfeited the right to seek our rescue from it.

Since that writing, Joel’s been – far more tragically – in a position to actually put these ill-advised ideas into action.

As special envoy, he gave a scary speech in Geneva on October 29, 2019, in which he asserted that “There can be no military solution to the Syrian conflict.  Only a political solution.” Sounds sensible, right? Well sure, if he and the administration he represents truly believed that and acted accordingly. Joel failed to explain how still stationing US troops in Syria to guard American oil concessions isn’t a military move, nor how Washington’s latest famine-inducing “Caesar” sanctions – officially carrying the macabre-euphemism of a title “Civilian Protections Act” – counts as purely political, and not an act of mass-punishment war on the Syrian people.

At the earlier April 2019 World Economic Forum in Jordan, Joel declared that “It’s for the Syrian people to decide their own leadership, their own government,” but he’s either oblivious to (I hope), or cynically aware of (I fear), the obvious actuality that Washington has always – and continues to – placed limits on, and forcefully guided, those “Syrian” decisions.

Just a few months ago, Joel spoke at virtual policy forum set up by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – a think tank founded by AIPAC-supporters and decidedly “in the tank” for Israel. He first dismissed claims that Caesar sanctions will hurt civilians – in spite of significant historical and policy evidence to the contrary – then let slip what’s really afoot:

The announcement of Caesar sanctions is the first taste of what the US government will do on this front…Several tranches of additional Syria sanctions are already in the pipeline. This summer, the United States will put unprecedented political and economic pressure on the Assad regime…

Callous, vindictive, and almost certain to be unproductive – the (not-so-) new American policy way.

In a rational world one might ask how someone so demonstrably wrong could later be appointed America’s point-man on the very thing he’d been so wrong about (to say nothing of Joel’s Iraq illusions)? But this is decidedly irrational Washington we’re talking about: city of no consequences or accountability.

“Your Conclusions Were All Wrong, [Joel]”

Joel was a teenager, finishing high school en route to West Point, during the late Reagan years. So one assumes he’s familiar with the Tom Clancy 1984 novel turned blockbuster filmThe Hunt for the Red October (1990). It sort of personified the era. When I think about Joel Rayburn’s books, columns, and general scholarship – which I still respect for its depth and seriousness – I’m reminded of an exchange from that film. It unfolds between the defecting Soviet submarine commander (Sean Connery) and the scholarly CIA-analyst protagonist (Alec Baldwin):

Captain Ramius: What books?

Jack Ryan: Pardon me?

Captain Ramius: What books did you write?

Jack Ryan: I wrote a biography of, of Admiral Halsey, called “The Fighting Sailor”, about, uh, naval combat tactics…

Captain Ramius: I know this book!…Your conclusions were all wrong, Ryan…

Like Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan, Joel Rayburn’s conclusions – despite his raw intellect and basic decency – are also all wrong. They’re mired in specious assumptions, deflated myths, and an abortive strategic track record.

Now, let me be clear: I take no pleasure in criticizing my old teacher. If anything, I miss my mentor who’d never known he’d been one. I wish, deeply and desperately, that Joel Rayburn was on my side – our side, the side of peace and principle. That he, in fact, isn’t, stands as a challenge – a caution – to the idea that intellect alone can be the army’s, or America’s, salvation.

Even scarier, Joel was one of the good ones – Jesus, maybe he still is – who believed in something more than combat’s capacity as a masculinity-proving-ground, or even its career-advancement calculus. But as I’ve said, he fell for the big lie, the long con: that the US is a force for good in the Middle East – and of America’s competence and charter to remake the region.

I still like to believe that Joel believes. I just wish it was in something better and more befitting a man of his quality. That he’d followed his own bygone advice: and challenged assumptions.

Danny Sjursen
Danny Sjursen

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen &

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